Radical social transformation in Venezuela under Hugo Chávez

Reversing the Process of Exclusion

When he took over the Venezuelan presidency on February 2, 1999, the former army colonel Hugo Chávez ended what had de facto been forty years of two-party rule by the social democratic Acción Democrática and the social Christian Copei.1 These two parties represented a constantly shrinking percentage of the population in the world’s fourth biggest exporter of crude oil: mostly, the upper class linked to the pension model of the state-run oil sector, and the middle class, growing poorer since the 1980s. In his election campaign, Chávez, who in 1992 made an attempt to overthrow President Carlos Andrés Perez in a coup d’état, focused on an anti-neo-liberal discourse, directed mainly against the incipient privatisation of the state oil company, Petroleso de Venezuela S. A. (PDVSA). He also promised to pave the way for a new constitution. Chávez won 56 percent of the vote and set in motion two parallel processes: re-institutionalisation and social transformation from the bottom up. Re-institutionalisation means the attempt to restore the legitimacy of the state institutions, authorities and functions and make them operable once more. These two processes are closely connected and complementary, but sometimes also at odds with one another. As a whole, the transformation process is called the »Bolivarian process« in reference to the anti-colonial freedom fighter Simón Bolivar. Bolivar fought for a sovereign and republican alliance of states in South America at the start of the 19th century.

A few weeks after Chávez had taken up office, a constituent assembly was chosen and a new constitution was drawn up. This constitution was accepted via referendum in December 1999 with 72 percent of the vote. In 2000, Chávez was reelected as president in polls run according to the new constitution, receiving 59.75 of the vote. Today, the government consists of three left-wing parties, one multi-ethnic party and an indigenous party, and is supported by a large number of grass-roots organisations and smaller left-wing parties.

In Chávez, the candidate won who was furthest removed from the traditional powers. His election was the result of increasing social polarisation accompanied by the decay of the traditional structures of representation. Hence, neither the decline of the traditional parties and unions in Venezuela nor the social polarisation have been caused by Chávez, as is frequently claimed. Rather, they have their main roots in socio-economic factors. In the 1980s and 1990s, Venezuela had the slowest growth rates on the continent (in minus figures) and a high rate of inflation that reached a hundred percent in 1996. At the end of the nineties, around eighty percent of the population lived in poverty and were to a large extent excluded from political and social participation, education, health care, and even basic material provision.

Until the so-called »Caracazo« people’s revolution in 1989, Venezuela was considered a model Latin American democracy with respect to liberal, democratic indicators such as regular elections and respect of certain civil rights. What triggered the revolution was a drastic rise in fares for public transport in Caracas on 27 February 1989. The price hike was part of a strict neo-liberal programme announced by President Carlos Andrés Pérez, based on IWF guidelines. The unrest spread within one day from the capital to almost all the large and medium-sized cities in the country. Massive plundering took place. After a week, the rebellion was put down by the army and the national guard. In the process, up to three thousand people were killed. So the year 1989 marks a turning point in the history of Venezuela.

Since the 1980s, the de-legitimised political system had reacted with severe repression and gentle reform. To consolidate its rule, it integrated elites from outside the political sphere. But this purported opening up to »civil society« included only a reduced group of European immigrants and small and medium-sized companies. This led to a further marginalisation of the majority and a rise in the state’s loss of legitimacy. For this reason, as the Venezuelan philosopher and grass-roots activist Roland Denis claims, the lower classes did not call for an opening up to civil society, but direct protagonism of the population and the »constituent power«.2

In the nineties, the protests became increasingly broad-based. A large number of social and political actors fought for the social rights of the people to have a central place on the political agenda, in view of a neo-liberal paradigm that was marginalizing them. The autonomous social struggles became increasingly organised and began to merge together in a joint new political project. They thus changed from being mere resistance to becoming a creative, constitutive power.

Here, Roland Denis stresses the fundamental role played by the structure of the district assembly »as a centre for the consecration of the social power in the country and as an active place of articulation for the grass-root struggles. A space of debate and unity of action that gave the ideological discourse, based on the autonomy of the power of the people and the necessity of sovereign spaces in which the power of the people is expressed as a fundamental legitimating force of the new democracy, a hegemonic location.«3

If today Chávez faces the accusation that civil society is being repressed under his presidency, it is necessary to look at exactly who is making this accusation. The actors that now see themselves as the »civil society« are the representatives of the old system with regard to the West. They neither represent a social consensus, nor are they in a position to produce one.
The social composition of the Bolivarian movement and the opposition can be seen with the naked eye. The supporters of Chávez come mostly from the lower classes of the population and are often dark-skinned, black or of indigenous origin, while the opposition demonstrations are chiefly made up of the largely pale-skinned middle and upper class.

The feeling that the poor and marginalized now have of being recognised as people, the internalised, new feeling of being right, of being treated with respect in institutions and the opportunity to take part in collective struggles without having to be scared of repression: all this plays a decisive role in the broad support enjoyed by Chávez. The feeling of their own inferiority and lack of ability that they often had under a repressive regime has been reversed. »The Bolivarian revolution has allowed many people to see that it is possible to turn around the process in which the victims of exclusion themselves tend to reproduce the stigma,« writes the Colombian historian Medófilo Medina.4

From the Bolivarian revolution to a new constitution

The process of drawing up and passing the new constitution has a constitutive role here. NGOs and social organisations participated directly in the constituent assembly via workshops, commissions and round tables. For this reason, the constitution also represents the central point of reference for social and political demands of the lower classes and parts of the middle class. The Bolivian Constitution (RBV 1999) introduces plebiscitarian elements and mechanisms of participation, as well as special laws regarding women, indigenous peoples and the environment. It establishes social citizenship and social equality as the aims of the social order, and the state as their guarantor. The rights and participation mechanisms are to be socially implemented by means of government programmes and laws. Social measures, free education opportunities, personal loans and redistribution of land are intended to extend the egalitarian social and economic participation of marginalized groups. There are many aspects that go against worldwide hegemonic and neo-liberal parameters, including, for example, the establishment of a state-run, national insurance scheme based on the solidarity principle and the recognition of housework as »productive of added value and wealth«, which means that people who do it can be insured under the scheme and receive free public school and university education. The collective and inalienable right of the indigenous population to land and waters they formerly used, recognition of their social, political and economic forms of organisation and the ban on patenting genomes from living things are by no means neo-liberal parameters, nor are the decisions that the main sector of the petroleum company PDVSA is to remain in state hands, that water should be publicly administered, and that large-scale land holding goes against the public interest.

The constitution also enshrines cultural rights for the first time and gives popular culture a higher priority. Culture is promoted in a great variety of areas and a great variety of ways: admission to museums is free of charge, there are numerous new grants and subsidies for all the arts, increased national film production and a lot of grants for independent artists. In September 2003, a state-financed but independently run cultural TV channel, ViveTV, was started up. And large cultural congresses (literature, poetry etc.) now take place frequently.

However, up to now there is no law that regulates cultural policies. This is the case in many other fields as well, because processes of legislation take a long time. Because of this, the competencies in the cultural areas are not precisely defined and the mechanisms of distribution and decision-making sometimes lack transparency and are extremely subjective. A cultural law passed in August at its first reading – to become effective, it has to be passed a second time after further consultations – has been rejected by several creative artists. The law was patched together from two contrary drafts – the first strongly participative, the other rather traditional. The chairman of the »Parliamentary Commission for Education, Culture, Sport and Leisure«, Luis Acuña, admitted at the end of August that the law »did not satisfy all cultural sectors«, but added that it had not yet been finally passed. He therefore called on all sectors to communicate their opinion to the commission so that »the necessary corrections can be made.«

Many cultural initiatives are calling for a »cultural constituent assembly«, similar to the constituent assembly, where the guidelines for cultural policies are laid down by the grass roots. In some Venezuelan states, assemblies like these are already being prepared; even the now controversial minister of culture has promised his support. The fundamental principle of the constitution – in contradistinction to representative democracy – is »participative and protagonistic democracy«. That is, the state is seen as a participative space in which the population helps shape public life and monitor institutions by means of various instruments. This includes the extension of the three powers (1) by »Citizen Power«, exercised by the »Republican Moral Council«, which consists of the Attorney General, the Comptroller General and the Ombudsman, and is responsible for »public ethics and administrative morals«, as well as issues regarding education; and (2) the autonomous »Voter Power«, represented by the »National Electoral Council«, CNE. In addition, elected office bearers can be voted out of office by referendum after half their mandate has passed. At a local level, the people have been given a say in the drawing up and distribution of the budget.
President Chávez plays a special role in this process. Often, especially in Europe and the USA, he is characterised as a »populist« or a »neo-populist«. However, there are clear differences between Chávez’s policies and (neo-)populist models. Chávez’s role is more complex. He succeeds in communicating with the scattered masses who have no organisational integration as a result of the fragmentation and individualisation fostered by neo-liberalism. At the same time, he acts as an integrative figure for all the organisations and movements taking part in the process and is the guarantor for the constant inclusion of social movements in the process, because he represents a counterbalance to the often traditional praxes of the parties making up the government. In contrast with populist praxes, the government supports self-organisation. Hence, the government programmes are mostly based on the initiative of organised groups or those undergoing organisation, and city districts that then receive technical and financial assistance.

Whereas in Europe and the USA doubts are constantly being voiced regarding the democratic character of the Venezuelan process, the Venezuelan sociologist Edgardo Lander sums up the situation as follows: »The transformations in political culture and the processes of inclusion, the integration of the poor majority of the country, who were previously marginalised, as subjects of political and organisational action – this is the most important achievement on the way to a more democratic society.«5

For a profound analysis of the process in Venezuela, one needs a concept of democracy that goes beyond liberal-democratic institutions analysis. In the same way that Laclau and Mouffe see the aim of the left-wing in the consolidation of the democratic revolution that began two hundred years ago,6 the Bolivarian process declares precisely this to be its task. The ideals of »freedom«, »equality«, »democracy« - and, with regard to the situation and history of Venezuela, »independence« - are classified as being not yet fulfilled, and are brought up to date and redefined. Radical democracy, in the sense of Laclau and Mouffe, means a radicalisation of the democratic revolution by extending the ideals to more and more areas of society in which relations of power and dominance exist. In these areas, those affected by the repressions prevailing there undertake a more radical – in the sense of deeper, penetrating to the roots – interpretation of the ideals. At the same time, the significance of the plural social movements for the transformation process in Venezuela can be analysed just as well with the hegemony-critical approach of radical democracy. This sees democracy as a process of extending political spaces, and gives a view of NGOs and social movements in the construction and extension of participation. The social scientist María Pilar Garcia-Guadilla and Monica Hurtado, for instance, have analysed the constituent process from the viewpoint of radical democracy. According to Garcái-Guadilla, the constitution has introduced »new identities and concepts of >citizenship< and democracy that are based on participation. On the other hand, the constituent process has shown how the heterogeneity of a civil society and the diversity of interests has not prevented cooperation and solidarity between the organisations.«7

»One of the unique characteristics of the Bolivarian revolution is the way there is no real avant-garde leading the revolutionary political action, but a broad social front consisting of various movements. Some are organised as political parties and others as a system of grass-roots collectives that are grouped around the Bolivarian circle and the various social missions and plans and include at least sixty percent of Venezuelans. This makes it possible for the reform process, which is starting to stimulate the qualitative changes, to be carried out in a democratic context whose dynamics are determined by the participation of the various collectives as protagonists«, write the Spanish social scientists Mario Sanoja Obediente and Iraida Vargas-Arenas.8

No pre-ordained or preferred form of organisation, with regard to structure, content or orientation, exists in Venezuela. However, environmental activists, women, migrants, sex workers, disabled people, Indígenas, blacks, farmers, workers, gays and lesbians take part in the process with their own organisations, even if there are still inequalities in the public and social recognition of the different forms of repression to which they are subject. But the aim, as Chantal Mouffe says, is »to build up a >we< as radical-democratic >citizens<, a collective political identity that is articulated by means of the principle of democratic equivalence. But it must be emphasized that this relationship of equivalence does not eliminate the differences.«9


1 The »independent« Rafael Caldera (1994-1999) did not belong formally to the traditional parties. However, he was the undisputed leading figure of Copei until shortly before the elections.

2 See Roland Denis, Los fabricantes de la rebelión (Movimiento Popular; Chavismo y Sociedad en los años noventa). Caracas 2001, p. 66 f.

3 Ibid., p. 22.

4 Medófilo Medina, Venezuela al rojo entre noviembre de 2001 y mayo de 2002. In Medófilo Medina/Margarita López Maya, Venezuela – confrontación social y polarización política, Bogotá 2003, p. 48 f.

5 See Edgardo Lander, Venezuela – La búsqueda de un proyecto contrahegemónico, in: Ana Esther Ceceña (ed.), Hegemonías y emancipaciones en el siglo XXI, Buenos Aires 2004, p.197-223.

6 See Ernesto Laclau/Chantal Mouffe, Hegemonie und radikale Demokratie. Zur Dekonstruktion des Marxismus. Vienna 1991.

7 María Pilar García-Guadilla/Monica Hurtado, Participation and Constitution Making in Colombia and Venezuela. Paper for the Latin American Studies Association (LASA). Miami 2000, p. 241 f.

8 Mario Sanoja Obediente/Iraida Vargas-Arenas, »La vía del cambio social. Un amplio frente social asume el rol de vanguardia.« In Question, Nr. 20, 2nd year, February 2004.

9 Chantal Mouffe, »Feminismo, ciudania, y politica democratica radical.« In Debate Deminista. Ciudadanía y Feminismo, México D.F. 2001, p. 47 (Spanish translation of »Feminism, citizenship and radical democratic politics« in Judith Butler/Joan Scott (ed.), Feminists Theorize the Political. New York 1992, p. 369-384).